New study finds cutting back children's screen time linked to improved cognition

Ben Davidson
October 2, 2018

Confirming most parents' worst fears, children who had more than two hours of screen time daily performed worse on the tests than kids who spent less time in front of a device.

Furthermore, the data used in the study was collected only once, not over time.

The children in the study displayed better cognition when they met more of the recommended guidelines, though the children that met either just the screen time guideline or both the screen time and the sleep guidelines showed stronger cognitive development.

Half of the children (51 percent) met the sleep recommendation, 37 percent met the screen time recommendation, and 18 percent met the physical activity recommendation. A Canadian study reported that one in 20 kids in the USA meets the guidelines on sleep, exercise and screen time and nearly a third are outside recommendations for all these. Those guidelines recommend that children get nine to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep, less than two hours of screen time and at least one hour of physical activity every day.

Dr. Eduardo Esteban Bustamante, an assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of IL at Chicago who was not directly involved in the research, suggested that the study's findings about screen time may reflect interruption of important childhood growth cycles involving stress related to physical activity and recovery from sleep.

They also tested the kids for six kinds of cognitive skills, adjusting the results for household income, puberty development and other factors that might affect performance.

The Lancet study's authors say more research is needed, and the link between screen time and mental development is not fully established.

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"Without consideration of what kids are actually doing with their screens, we're seeing that the two-hour mark actually seems to be a good recommendation for benefiting cognition", said Jeremy Walsh, an exercise physiologist at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan and one of the study authors, to Science News.

As part of the project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers across the United States interviewed children and their parents about their lifestyle habits.

"Based on our findings, pediatricians, parents, educators, and policymakers should promote limiting recreational screen time and prioritizing healthy sleep routines throughout childhood and adolescence", Walsh said.

"Each minute spent on screens necessarily displaces a minute from sleep or cognitively challenging activities". Some 25% met two and just 5% met all three recommendations.

Digital screen technology can deliver educational and enriching content, but spending too much time with that technology may also be harmful for children, this broader body of research is finding.

On average, kids aged between 8 and 11 spend 3.6 hours per day in front of the TV, mobile phone, computer or tablet screen.

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